Should Social Media Drive Click-Throughs or Grow Reach?

In 2014, one of the biggest stories in social media was its emergence as a major driver of website traffic. At the beginning of the year, BuzzFeed began reporting to the press that 75% of its site traffic was coming from social media, and it didn't take long for others to begin touting their numbers. In reality, this trend began around August 2013 when many digital publishers noticed that social media had become a significant source of traffic. Up until that time, the conventional wisdom was that social media platforms were ill-suited for generating digital conversions. However, it is now clear that--harnessed effectively--social media can even surpass search as the main external referrer to the website.

This new reality is proving to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, social media practitioners are able to show clear ROIs since significant, discrete, quantifiable portions of site traffic-and in many cases, revenue-can now be definitively attributed to social media executions. On the other hand, there is an increasing risk that every social media execution could be evaluated solely on the basis of its ability to create traffic.

This can become especially problematic for organizations that cannot directly measure the bulk of their revenues through site traffic. Consumer-packed goods companies still rely on brick-and-mortar purchases for the lion's share of their revenues. Television networks still derive a far greater portion of their revenues from TV advertising, whose value is determined by ratings. Organizations such as these rely primarily on brand advertising to grow their businesses. If social media is determined to be best deployed as a direct-response channel, then its role in organizations such as these will be severely limited.

Additionally, preliminary research has demonstrated that social media has an effect similar to that of brand advertising, and it should have an important role to play in the overall brand marketing mix. A 2012 study, by comScore and Facebook, analyzed the effect on sales of exposure to posts on Facebook. It showed that the Facebook posts generated thinly layered incremental sales growth over time. This is very similar to the way that brand advertising works. As Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute states in his 2010 How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don't Know, "40 years of single-source-based analysis has delivered solid empirical evidence that advertising drives sales among those who are exposed to it," but that "advertising sales effects are spread out in time. This means that the effects of today's advertising is layered very thinly across sales figures over a long time period."

Thus, if businesses continue to measure social media's value solely on the basis of website traffic, then they run the risk of missing out on a powerful brand marketing opportunity. The idea that we will one day be able to draw a direct correlation between social engagements or impressions and in-store sales or TV ratings may be unrealistic without the kinds of single-source-based studies that established the effectiveness of TV advertising.

Businesses should still devote social media content to driving website traffic, but they should also optimize a portion of their social media content for reach, which is the primary driver of brand marketing success. The unique power of social media is that mass reach is not solely dependent on the media budget. High engagement (especially shares or retweets) alone, or supported by a moderate budget, can drive mass diffusion events.

The social media team at Univision has a long list of examples in which content on Facebook pages reached audiences several times the size of their fan bases through high engagement. Accordingly, the team dedicates a portion of company social media content to accomplish mass reach even while social media traffic has become critical for the digital business. In short, the best way to capitalize on the social media opportunity is by creating a balance between content optimized for click-throughs and content optimized for reach and engagement.   

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